Otak-otak: Wrapped Up With The Region

by Yale-NUS College - Celeste Beh

Otak-otak has been wrapped up in a number of regional interactions across time, such as innovations in technology and trade disruptions due to the global pandemic. Through these interactions, the way otak-otak is sold has changed and will likely continue to morph in alignment with future needs and trends.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Otak-otak is a popular food item for many in Southeast Asia. The slightly charred leaves open up to reveal a tangerine coloured delicacy that has stood the test of time. Otak-otak is usually made using meat from the Spanish Mackerel fish, although there are other variations of otak-otak which include sotong, fish head and crab. Growing up, this was one of my favourite snacks and I would frequently head to the bakery near my house to buy some. Tucked quietly at the back was the otak-otak griller that would transform the exterior of fresh-looking banana leaves into a beautiful shade of brown, resembling the process of a leaf changing colours during fall.

A Past in Promotions
Otak-otak was once the star in promotional photos for the Singapore Tourism Board.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Display of Food by Singapore Tourism Board, 1990s. Image credit: Singapore Tourism Board.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Display of Otak-otak on Plate, Unknown. Image credit: Singapore Tourism Board.

Of Those Behind The Grill

Wrapped Up with The Region

Otak-otak Purchased from Clementi 448 Market and Food Centre, 2020. Photo by Author.

Otak-otak being sold by itinerant hawkers along bus interchanges or MRT stations used to be a common sight in Singapore. One could decide how many to purchase, and a bag filled with piping hot otak-otak would be handed over.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Mr Peter Tan’s Otak-otak store selling “Indonesian Otah”, showing its popularity among consumers in Singapore, 1988. Image credit: The Straits Times.

Mr Peter Tan was a prominent otak-otak seller and supplier in the 1980s. He would supply up to 350 stores with his Indonesian otak-otak recipe.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Otak-otak Being Cooked on Grill, 2020. Photo by Author.

The most important equipment in this business is the otak-otak griller. Vendors would slap a few otak-otak on and flip them based on their instincts. The one used here is a Japanese griller, which is smokeless and became widely used in Singapore from the late 1980s.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Otak-otak for Sale at a Hawker Stall, 2020. Photo by Author.

Many who sell otak-otak now do it in conjunction with a main business. This uncle mainly sold rojak but the otak-otak griller fronts the stall, enticing customers to add another item to their rojak order.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Night Market at Jonker Walk, Melaka, 2020. Photo by Author.

Traveling across the border into Malaysia, one can still find otak-otak sold by street vendors. In Melaka, the otak-otak sold is sometimes supplied from Muar, a town famous for the quality and taste of their otak-otak.

The Business of Packaging

Wrapped Up with The Region

Stall Selling Otak-otak Within a Mall, 2020. Photo by Author.

Due to the Movement Control Order in Malaysia, Singapore received low imports of banana leaves. In April 2020, this stall which sold otak-otak put up notices informing customers that they would receive their otak-otak in a takeaway box without the banana leaf.

Wrapped Up with The Region

Banana Plant, 2020. Photo by Author.

Banana plants are one of the most widely grown flora on our island. I was reminded of the dependency we have on imports, even for banana leaves, every time I pass by yet another of these plants.

Yale-NUS College - Celeste Beh

Established in 2011, through a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS College is a leading liberal arts and sciences college in Asia, with a residential programme that integrates living and learning. Drawing on the resources and traditions of its founding universities, a Yale-NUS education promotes broad-based interdisciplinary learning across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities complemented by depth of expertise in one’s major.

Celeste is a Yale-NUS College graduate who majored in History. She has a specific interest in the historical and cultural aspects of Singapore’s food, dialects and migration.

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